Going wild over beauty

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Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. You smile? Ah! when you have lost it you won’t smile. … People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

This is, of course, the passage from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray where Dorian Gray is seduced by the words of Lord Henry Wotton, to whom Dorian has just been introduced by his friend, the painter Basil Hallward. I was seduced long ago by the idea that beauty needs no explanation. Today, no artist would argue that beauty needs no explanation. Beauty has been out of style for a century. Nowadays, ugliness is translated by genius into beauty, but only for those shallow enough to be deceived by appearances.

Same with architecture. Today’s architects shrink in horror when anyone uses the word beauty. Maybe that is because the same public that is willing to accept ugliness as beauty in an art gallery has always refused to be fooled by an ugly building that merely sits out on the street.

For architects, beauty was for 2,000 years one leg of the triad of their art. The Roman architect Vitruvius (80-70 B.C. to 15 B.C.) wrote that “well building” requires “Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas.” Some 1,600 years later, this was rendered in English as “Firmness, Commodity and Delight” by Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) in his Elements of Architecture, a loose translation of Vitruvius published in 1624. Wotton was a member of Parliament and the British ambassador to Venice under King James I.

Hold on a moment. What’s with the two Henry Wottons?

Well may you ask. Might Oscar Wilde’s fictional Lord Henry have been inspired by the historical Sir Henry? After all, the former was drawn as a cynical hedonist while the latter is known for having said, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Cynical enough for you? The quote even caused a scandal back in England. But Wilde might also have been aware that the historical Henry Wotton wrote a poem called “The Character of a Happy Life,” whose first stanza reads:

How happy is he born or taught,
That serveth not another’s will;
Whose armour is his honest thought,
And simple truth his utmost skill;

Well, that is the opposite of cynicism. Maybe Wilde’s model for Lord Henry was not Sir Henry after all. Maybe Wilde had never even heard of the real Henry Wotton.

Still, aren’t the two Henry Wottons a singular coincidence? I have trolled the internet for evidence that Wilde patterned his fictional character after a historical figure with the same name, or at least that literary scholars have noticed the echo. Nada. (Of course, libraries are closed.) Yet, in regard to a novel that has generated intense analysis for a century, can I be the first to ever notice this intersection of two Henry Wottons? Not quite likely!

If anyone has any information on this curiosity, please comment below. Meanwhile, as Wilde wrote, “Beauty is one of the great facts of the world.” Yes. As plain as the nose on your face. (Of course, many are wearing masks.)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Going wild over beauty

  1. John the First says:

    “Today’s architects shrink in horror when anyone uses the word beauty. ”

    I’d rather say, they shrink from cowardliness and complacency.

    Even the sun, majestically bringing light regardless of the darkness it shines on, does not love to shine on those places of barbarian institutional and residential architectural forms and materials, its radiation becomes crude and harsh, its reflections of light finds no reflective fine objects enjoying its majestic love, its light turns cold, its warmth turns into unbearable hellish heath, a torture for all sensitive living beings, where the most natural of them flee to other places, like from a desert, deserted.

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  2. MICHAEL CAMPBELL says:

    Visceral. On a walk (after reading some of this post) I tried hard to remember something I’d thought of a week or so ago regarding criticism of modernism. I’m pretty sure I’ve remembered it now. It had something to do with the word visceral. The idea was do not criticize modernism on rational grounds. In a sense don’t criticize at all. Particularly not intellectually. If you don’t like a work, instead simply state that you have had a certain visceral reaction to the piece and that therefore you don’t really like it.

    We need to use our vocabulary more. There is a word for everything and finding the right word can provide a shortcut.

    Integrity. Another word. The process of remembering the word visceral brought up more ideas. We could criticize certain bad modern works more directly too by pointing out things that are unresolved or half-baked and state that they therefore lack integrity. Either structural or environmental. Often, when relying on plywood or steel, modern architecture lacks resolution of any kind for want of structural constraints. (Being that plywood and steel provide so much freedom of shape and form). Also, many modern buildings decay for lack of environmental integrity when they haven’t been designed and detailed to interface properly or effectively with the local climate. (Some of Brad Pitt’s Katrina houses in New Orleans suffered from this and fell into dis-repair and I think were even abandoned).

    When designs have been resolved both structurally and environmentally, on the other hand, we tend to perceive them as beautiful.

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    • I’m not quite sure what to make of your comment, Michael. First you advise not criticizing modern architecture at all, rationally or intellectually. Then, after pointing to the word integrity, you engage in a very rational critique of various works of modern architecture. You conclude by saying that “when designs have been resolved both structurally and environmentally … we tend to perceive them as beautiful.” Maybe so, but I am not sure I understand “resolving” designs structurally or environmentally. I don’t think something is perceived as beautiful just because it accomplishes some sort of apparently practical resolution. I enjoyed your thoughtful comment, but color me contused!

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  3. Marushka says:

    An enjoyable read! However I personally wouldn’t dismiss those who transform ugliness into beauty. Not, it should be noted, from motives of hubris or fashion (which I suspect holds most of your censure) – but those humble workers who recognize that ugliness is a renewable resource. When naturally occurring beauty is scarce, why not redeem, renew, recreate? Find the joy in the gray, and perhaps use it as a canvas for a rainbow. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

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    • You’re welcome, Marushka. Yes, he who can enjoy the least of pleasures or even the most displeasurable things, including ugliness, has big advantages in the world. However, to paint everything bad as good is a dangerous occupation for a critic!

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    • John the First says:

      No hubris or fashion is capable of creation of beauty, hence modernism, the towers of hubris and the contemporary fashionable which are erected in our modern cities, not coincidentally, the financial and institutional centres.
      Beauty springs from the contemplation of the soul of individuals, receiving scaled down impressions of Platonic forms, heavenly forms. Forms which hover high above, only very indirectly being accessible to the human mind. The kind of pretence of Hubris is the muddy swamp which is a hindrance to such contemplative receptive capacities, it is closed, superficial and dark, instead of receptive, ‘divinely natural’ and light. Fashion on the other hand is mimetic in nature, the question is then, is the example downward spiralling, towards the brute and ugly, or aspiring upwards, towards beauty. Fashion is per definition collective, if it is based on the downward spiralling, it contaminates whole cultures… for the good, or the bad.

      It is not just coincidental that the only form of aspiration towards beauty currently mainly unaffected by hubris and contemporary technological barbarianism is the art of gardening. There is little money to be made in that area, little ideological power granted by it, it does not afford technological, institutional and corporate exhibitionist glamour, and the forms cannot be shaped by crudeness to the extent possible in all the other areas of contemporary art. The popularity of the art of gardening as such signifies, due to an increased general improvement of social-economic conditions, the first awakening in the masses of a sense of beauty, of a budding aspiration towards beauty which remains relatively unaffected by hubris and vain ambition, proceeding from the natural forms, of which the hands of the brute find a permanently all too fine and unwilling living material.

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  4. LazyReader says:

    Architecture is hedonism and narcissism in built form. XD

    Like

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